Jason Roberts overcomes childhood abuse to reach Paralympics

Years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father left Jason Roberts with a brain injury and cerebral palsy-like symptoms. Now he's bound for the Rio Paralympics and, more remarkably, says he's forgiven the man who caused the damage.

World championship medallist now 'in a better place,' bound for Rio

Para-athlete Jason Roberts opens up about his condition

8 years ago
Duration 0:56
Featured VideoThe Pan Am games gold medalist explains the circumstances that led to him to have brain damage

He remembers his father's rage.

Years before Jason Roberts became a promising Canadian Paralympic athlete, his dad would arrive home after long, tough days at his construction job and start verbally abusing his young son. The taunts, the insults became more ferocious each day.

Then, the harsh words turned into physical battering — sometimes resulting in trips to the hospital for Jason. He remembers suffering a broken leg. But there was nobody to reach out to. He was living in Grenada, and his mother, Veronica, had moved to Canada to work at a hotel in Toronto in hopes of starting a new life for the family.

Finally, after yet another hospital visit, a doctor delivered the bad news: Young Jason, about 12 at the time, had suffered a brain injury because of repeated head trauma.

By the time he finally escaped the situation and joined his mother in Canada, Jason had balance issues — similar to symptoms experienced by people with cerebral palsy — and mental concerns he incurred from his father's abuse.

Now, some seven years later, the 19-year-old is making the very best of the horrific circumstances he endured. He will represent Canada at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio in the track and field disciplines of shot put, discus and javelin, and if he continues his rapid rise through the ranks he could arrive home with some medals.

It's an understatement to say he went through a lot to get here.

"It sucks," Roberts said. "That's what people say when I tell them my story. They feel bad for me. You shouldn't feel bad for me. I'm in a better place now. I've made sacrifices to make my life better."

The last time Roberts talked to his father was five years ago over the phone. He called his dad to forgive him. It was a remarkably mature move for the teenager, but one Roberts felt strongly he had to make.

"I used to see a psychiatrist, but it wasn't working," Roberts said, when asked if professional care has helped him deal with his issues. "The problem was with me and my father.

"I had to man up before I was a man. It was [make the phone call] now or just wait forever and never do it. Eventually, I knew I had to forgive him if I was ever going to be happy with my life."

But wasn't he angry with his father?

"At first I was," Roberts said. "But I noticed holding grudges was just going to eat me up on the inside. So I forgave him. I was able to breathed and let go. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and did what made me happy."

A mother's love

Sports have helped Roberts improve his life. But there's no bigger force in his world than his mother.

A short time after Roberts reunited with her in Canada, he suffered a serious leg injury because of his balance issues. Veronica quit her job so she could be there for her son in his recovery, and her omnipresent smile and unconditional love have been key factors in Roberts's physical and emotional progress.

"I'm a young man becoming a young adult," said Roberts, who has an older sister and two younger brothers. "I feel a young man should get advice from his father. But after all that has happened I feel my mother has become more like my father than a mother.

"My mom is my personal cheerleader. She always has a smile. It's unfortunate to say this, but not every kid can wake up every day and say, 'I have a mother who loves me and supports me.' I can say that and I'm happy.

"No matter what, she's been there for me."

Golden summer

Now, Roberts is returning the joy with his athletic success. He always has loved sports. He played basketball and football and even ran the 100-metre sprint at Chaminade College School in North York, Ont.

But he was held back because of his physical limitations. Eventually, it was suggested that Roberts try his hand at para-athletics. He was classified as an F-34 because of his cerebral palsy-like symptoms, meaning he could perform the shot put, javelin and discuss throws from a chair.

It seemed like all of Chaminade rallied behind him. The robotics students designed the chair and platform he now employs in his training and competitions.

Roberts made an immediate impact in his relatively new pursuit. He set two Canadian records in his first meet in 2014.

Then, at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto last summer at York University, 15 minutes from his home, he won gold in shot put. A few weeks later, he won bronze in discus at the International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

The success has buoyed Roberts's hopes for his future and he has taken the maturity he has exhibited in dealing with the abuse from his father into his training.

"I'm always in the gym now," Roberts said. "I used to slack off. My work ethic is getting better. I'm showing up to practices more. I'm listening to my coaches. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

"There is doubt. People tell me I have the talent and I believe that I can do more.

"[Last summer] opened my world to more possibilities. It has given me a chance to go higher, make my life better and my family's life better. It was something to be proud of. When I have a family, I can tell my kid this is what I've done and that I was an Olympic athlete."